Thursday, July 23, 2009

Abuse of Emergency Powers at Tulane After Katrina

After Katrina, a number of south Louisiana institutions of higher education had to restructure in order to handle the costs of repair and the likelihood of fewer students. The presidents of these institutions consulted with a number of other university presidents around the country. After financial exigency was declared, faculty no longer had a voice in the changes planned and implemented by the president. The situation had to be handled quickly and, due to the dispersal of people after the hurricane, there was no mechanism for consultation, we were later told. The rationale for the changes was to make Tulane better ("leaner") and to handle the cost of financing the debt we incurred (almost half a billion dollars) to clean and repair the university. I think that these measures have been successful from a fiscal perspective.

So, some of the results were extremely beneficial. The campus was up and running by spring semester, and the President's availability to students, parents, and ultimately faculty, helped create a public perception of an energetic and fully functioning university, so that many students (even first year students who had been on campus for only a day or two) returned. But some of the actions were dubious, and some seem to have been undertaken not because they saved money or even improved the campus but rather to transform the university in ways that the faculty had previously rejected.

Some of the dubious actions were the firing of tenured professors rather than untenured professors: of course, tenured professors cost the university more, but we have a clear procedure outlined in our faculty handbook for such situations. The response to queries concerning this practice included telling the faculty that the handbook is not the language of our employment contract, as we had been told when hired, but rather simply a guide for administrators that they may choose to ignore. When challenged on this point, faculty were told that we could take the issue to court if we liked. Whole schools were closed, including the School of Engineering (which had been a thorn in the side of administrators for many years).

It seemed clear to us that actions were being taken not necessarily because of their impact on the bottom line but because they enabled certain policies to go forward that the faculty would not approve in the past. For example, the undergraduate women's college, which has its own large endowment, was closed (yes, there is a lawsuit pending on this) as a means (to date unsuccessful) of bringing that specific endowment into the general endowment.

One further action that has both good and bad points: we transformed our adjuncts (New Orleans has a small pool of people who are even able to serve as adjuncts) into "full-time faculty," a second-tier "faculty" (many of whom do not have terminal degrees in their field) known as "professors of the practice of..." This "faculty" counts as full-time in all the materials sent to students and their families, even though they are not faculty caliber in many cases. They can be employed for no more than six years, but in the meantime, they get better salaries and some benefits.

My point is this: financial exigency can be used to cover a multitude of actions, some which are absolutely necessary for the viability of the institution and some which are not. In this current crisis, no one can say that there is no mechanism for consulting the faculty. You are all easy to find. Insist on being heard and insist on having some power. Look to Tulane and other southern Louisiana institutions for examples of actions that fall into both categories--necessary for fiscal health and unnecessary for that purpose but useful for other reasons. Then decide, in both categories, whether the action actually serves the interests of educating students.


Molly Anne Rothenberg
Department of English
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA 70118


Diane Leach said...

Professor Rothenberg-

A fine if frightening letter. Thank you. And thank you for pointing out that educating students is the University's primary mission. The UC Regents seem to have forgotten that students are the reason we--faculty and staff--are on campus. Without students, there is no University. Given the horrific hikes in fees and tuition, a college education has moved beyond reach of all but the wealthiest families.
Diane Sigman Leach
UC Berkeley

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